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8th December

First Published in The New York Sun, December 8, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

For many months I have written about the “takeover” of the New York City schools by the most radical fringe of the “progressive” education movement. In case anyone still doesn’t understand all of the implications of this, I urge that they turn their attention to remarks made by the deputy chancellor for instruction, Diana Lam, this past Friday at New York University. 

    An article in Saturday’s Daily News disclosed that, according to Ms. Lam, the chancellor will soon “change the face” of the school system’s already embattled “gifted and talented” programs. 
    The article asserts “the city is weeks away from unveiling changes that would keep the programs from being dominated by white children.” And how is this to be done? “Lam declined to give specifics but said the Department of Education will ‘expand the definition of what it means to be gifted and talented.’” 
    Got that? If you’re troubled, you should be. 

    Opposition to special programs for academically advanced students is a central tenet of the “progressive” educational philosophy. The demand that there be equality of results, rather than equality of opportunity, is nothing new. 

    We’ve seen it in New York and elsewhere. Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom devote much of their well-received new book, “No Excuses,” to the discussion of this very issue. One thing is clear. You don’t increase opportunity for some by eliminating it for others. 

    This wouldn’t be the first time in her career that Ms. Lam has gone after programs dear to the hearts of parents and the local citizenry. When she was superintendent in Providence, R.I., Ms. Lam targeted the city’s only well-regarded high school, Classical. There, like here, the issues were the same. Classical High School’s student body was disproportionately white and middle class in a school system overwhelmingly comprised of minorities. Like Stuyvesant and Bronx High School of Science here in New York City, Classical admits students on the basis of a competitive examination. 

    The Providence Journal sounded the alarm on July 24, 2000, on their editorial page, when they noted that Ms. Lam “doesn’t seem to like the idea that there is such an institution.” The editorial warned, “If Ms. Lam does plan to destroy Classical, we hope that she has some suggestions as to where the tax revenue now being paid by the city’s remaining middle-class families will come from. Many such families have stayed in Providence because they know there is at least one distinguished public high school. They will quickly leave if Classical is destroyed.” 

    After the editorial appeared, it brought a sympathetic chuckle from San Antonio Express-News columnist Roddy Stinson, who recalled Ms. Lam’s troubled tenure in her previous job as superintendent of that Texas district. Mr. Stinson quoted his June 18, 1997, article “The latest SASD (San Antonio School District) spectacle features the public battering of Jefferson High School by Superintendent Diana Lam….” 
    In a nasty letter, Ms. Lam wrote to the Jefferson faculty to “set the stage for the ‘reorganization’ of what many San Antonians felt was the district’s finest high school,” she claimed that “Thomas Jefferson offered me guidance: ‘My principle is to do whatever is right and leave the consequences to Him who has the disposal of them.’” 

    In recounting this in the context of her similar action in Providence, Mr. Stinson quipped, “Apparently, Thomas J. and the Almighty followed Lam to Rhode Island.” 

    Mr. Stinson deserved the laugh. His ongoing criticism of Ms. Lam, culminating in the Jefferson High incident, helped drive Ms. Lam out of town. However, Ms. Lam had the last laugh in that the district paid her over $800,000 to do so. She also learned a valuable lesson, one that she may have forgotten as she now takes on New York’s gifted programs. 

    Ms. Lam backed off on Classical High largely due to the outcry generated by the Providence Journal editorial. She and the public schools Chancellor Klein have reason not to expect the same concern from much of the New York City press, which has largely given Mr. Klein and his “Tweed Ring” the freest of free rides. 

by the Providence Journal editorial. She and the public schools Chancellor Klein have reason not to expect the same concern from much of the New York City press, which has largely given Mr. Klein and his “Tweed Ring” the freest of free rides. 

    In fact, the New York Times’s opposition to these programs is long-standing. When competitive testing for admission to the city’s academically competitive high schools, such as Bronx Science and Stuyvesant, came under fire in 1971, the Times opposed the heroic legislation, the Hecht-Calandra Law, that literally saved these schools. Heather Mac Donald discusses the unfortunate role of the Times in a compelling article in City Journal published in the Spring of 1999, “How Gotham’s Elite High Schools Escaped the Leveller’s Ax.” This article merits review right now, as Ms. Lam prepares to take on the vast majority of the city’s programs for the academically advanced, unprotected by law. 

    A couple of months ago, I wrote about the massive demonstration held in Region 6 in Brooklyn to save their gifted and talented programs. A thousand angry parents turned out in the largest protest thus far of the Bloomberg/Klein educational “reform” effort. It was no accident that the regional superintendent, Gloria Buckery, refused to attend. She most probably knew that Ms. Lam has these programs in the crosshairs.

    No child should be denied access to any program because of race or ethnicity; the system must take care to make sure that all children have a fair chance to participate. However, similarly, dismay over which children meet the fair standards must not deny these children access to the programs they earned their place in. 

    One only need to look at the wonderful success that the city’s Asian immigrants are experiencing in our schools to see just how color blind our gifted programs truly are. And these programs are absolutely critical to luring and retaining middle-class families back to the city schools. There is nothing more important to the future and stability of our city and its schools than this. 

    The message that parents and citizens must send to Diana Lam, Mr. Klein, and Mr. Bloomberg is the same one that the Providence Journal gave Ms. Lam three years ago: “Any school system, to be healthy, needs more than just low-income students.If Ms. Lam were to eliminate places that lure bright students (poor and rich), then she will have done severe damage to the city’s cultural and economic health.” 

    What exactly did she try to do?

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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